Good Citizen Sari
issue 318 - November 1999
Wandering through a market I spot a headline that makes me grab The Jakarta Post and wave it excitedly: ‘Look, Dita Sari has been freed!’
Dita is one of my heroines. At the age of 21 she led thousands of workers in protest against the Suharto regime. Her activism became notorious and in 1994 she faced her sentence wearing a headband that said simply: ‘Democracy or Death!’ Now she tells what it is like to be released into post-Suharto Indonesia.
photo by ANOUK RIDE
‘At 12 o’clock, the middle of the night, the guards entered my cell and said I should prepare myself because I was being released. I told them: “I don’t believe you.” I was angry: “You are just disturbing my sleep!” And I went back to sleep. But suddenly it all came true! It’s true!’ she exclaims, still in wonderment.
‘I was released mostly because lots of pressure was on the Government from the international groups and solidarity from inside Indonesia. Pressure accumulated from all over the world. I thank you for all that. It shows that worker solidarity is more universal than any other kind of solidarity, we are from different backgrounds but we still stand by each other. It’s amazing to me.
‘I was imprisoned for no good reason. I was a good citizen,’ she laughs and leans forward as though about to tell me a secret: ‘But, I am against the Government!’ The joke continues: ‘I never overspeed on the road although I am in a hurry, I never steal, I always cross the street in the right place. A whole lot of nice things, I do. But I’m definitely against the Government!
‘It began when I was 21 living in one room with workers, talking and sharing meals,’ she explains. ‘I realized I had to do something for them because I know for myself it’s not human to live in these conditions. They had low wages, no allowances, bad working conditions, but on top of that a lack of political power, no freedom of association and intervention by the military in negotiations and demonstrations.’
‘We explained to the workers – we cannot just talk about wages, allowances and that. “Who made the rules that make your wages so low? It is the Government, so you are also against the Government.” We related politics to the urgent needs of workers.
‘The Government was angry and that’s why I was put in jail.’ She stresses: ‘They didn’t like it at all! Especially the military. Because in 1994 when we set up this union (the People’s Democratic Union, later to become the PRD or People’s Democratic Party) they put one of their demands as abolishing the dual function of the military. At that time no other groups made that kind of demand because of the repression that might come. And it made the military really angry because they are not used to being criticized, especially about their principles. So we became, kind of... notorious!’
The other thing that has made the workers’ movement infamous is the prominent involvement of women. ‘Most of the export garment and textile workers are women. Unions and struggles are considered men’s territory, which it is not and we have to prove that this is wrong.’ She adds with a touch of mocking: ’“Politics are men, this belongs to men.” It’s not!’
Now that Dita is free she says things have changed but not enough: ‘Since Suharto went, it looks like democracy but it’s not. Organizations with a mass base try to set up a union, they apply to the Ministry of Manpower to register it with a list of names of the officials of the union. But most of the time the process is slowed so sometimes it takes ten months before a union is legal.
And the second thing is the names of new union officials are sent to the company so the boss knows who they are – and when they strike the officials are fired. This happens all the time. So the business, bureaucracy, the military and the Government are united against the workers. This is not democracy. OK, the press is alive, we can talk about anything but the journalists can be charged with association with a person that they write about. And the real function of the military is still there. So democracy is not rich yet. It’s like Paul McCartney said: “The long and winding road that leads to your door”.’
Dita’s first action upon being freed was to visit her mother’s grave. She had died while Dita was imprisoned and unable to obtain permission to attend the funeral. The experience of prison has made her struggle more personal, she says.
‘It’s a women’s prison, it’s filled with women’s talk, women’s issues,’ she says wearily, rolling her eyes. ‘You talk about babies, you talk about husbands, you talk about all these things; it’s tiring. But it’s a good experience because in the prison I learned about life. Life is not black and white, it’s lots of colours. Why a woman killed her husband, why she killed her own son, why she stole, why she sold her body; you learn about that. It’s interesting to see different lives, different points of view. It gives me a more human influence in my struggle. I hated to be in prison but all the things I experienced when I was inside shaped me a lot.’
‘When I was let out it was like: is this really happening? Is this really me? I can still smell the prison.’ (Dita was admitted to hospital with typhoid in late 1997, a disease which is commonly caused by insanitary living conditions).
‘It’s harder when you’re outside. Believe me, it’s true. OK, it’s painful inside because you believe your treatment is unfair, because you cannot be with the people, you’re isolated and also you have to deal with criminals. But when I was let out I felt it was harder. There’s more life. Lots of things, lots of work. I feel like someone is running after me. I don’t have enough time to do what I want to do. Then my brother says: “Come to Bali, you need time for family.” And I say OK, OK, but there are things to do here as well! It’s definitely harder!’
She stops for breath. ‘But it makes you satisfied. This is the work that I love and I identify myself with. I stop and think – what would my whole life mean if I didn’t do this?’
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.